Companies Wake Up to Workplace Violence

Article excerpt

Just a day after the Atlanta office shootings, the workplace violence prevention team at American Express convened by telephone to discuss coping with employees upset by the rampage.

At the clothing retailer The Limited, supervisors are trained to look for bruised employees, knowing that abusive lovers often pursue women at work.

Companies are waking up to the scope of violence at work. Murders, although declining in recent years, remain the second-leading cause of death on the job.

Companies are shaken by the rare but horrific cases in which a worker or customer runs amok, as chemist-turned-stock trader Mark O. Barton did Thursday in Atlanta, killing nine workers and customers and, separately, his wife and two children.

And increasingly, companies are being held liable for hiring violent employees or letting warning signs go unheeded.

"Companies are really under the gun -- literally -- to prevent violence and other hostile acts at work from happening," said Lynne McClure, author of Risky Business, a book on workplace violence.

This spring, a North Carolina jury awarded $7.9 million to the families of two men killed at a tool distribution center in 1995 by a violence-prone worker who had been fired. The jury found the center's two operators, Union Butterfield and Dormer Tools, negligent in failing to protect them.

The fired worker had threatened to return and "take management with me." Lawyers for the Asheville, N.C., companies are trying to get the verdict set aside.

"This man was a ticking time bomb and the management knew it, yet they did nothing to protect their employees," lawyer David Kirby, who represented the family of one killed worker, said in May.

Other companies have been held liable for "negligent hiring," or failing to check if a new hire has a propensity to violence.

Just Friday, a worker killed his boss and himself at a Charlotte, N.C., trucking terminal. Police said there had been a quarrel.

Yet despite the headlines, homicides at work are declining. There were 856 work-related murders in 1997, a 7 percent drop from 1996 that mirrors the fall in violent crime nationwide during this economic boom, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …